When I was 12 years old, I discovered an LP of Inside Shelley Berman in my mother’s small record collection. Nestled between The Sound of Music movie soundtrack and Helen Reddy was this comedy gem. While my mother was at work, I transferred the record onto audio cassette by holding my white Centurion boombox up to the stereo speakers. I managed to fit the entire album onto one side of the cassette. I listened to the album on my generic Walkman during my commute to school every day for several months. I didn’t know anything about Shelley Berman. For the longest time, all I knew was this one record. This was all pre-Internet. Berman didn’t have prominent television presence at the time and the local record stores couldn’t be bothered to stock pre-Yankovic comedy albums. Those were dark times, friends.
Inside Shelley Berman was aspirational listening for me. I’m not sure I wanted to be Shelley Berman as much as I wanted to be worthy of sitting in his audience. Berman exudes a sophistication lacking in your Adam Sandler or Louis C.K. You listen to a Shelley Berman record, you want to be wearing your best cocktail attire. Inside Shelley Berman is the comedy record I imagine the Drapers would play while entertaining their suburban pals. Grey suits and their wives having a giggle over observations about air travel and department store customer service. A couple of the guys would elbow and wink at Don about The Morning After, “Hope I don’t have to make that phone call to you in the morning, har-har-har.”
This record will not blow your mind with outrageous ideas. While I’m sure Shelley Berman is no stranger to outrageous ideas, his stage persona in this album does not indulge in them. Inside Shelley Berman is polite, gentle comedy. This is comedy that can be enjoyed in mixed company, should anyone still concern themselves with comedy etiquette in mixed company. If you want to be shocked by comedy, get a time machine and a Lenny Bruce album. If you like neuroses couched in light observational humour, Berman’s your man. Through a mix of telephone bits and monologues, Berman taps into the average anxieties and frustrations of modern life. Although some of the specifics are dated, the general concepts remain as relevant today as they were in 1959. Technology may be evolving rapidly but human behaviour plods along.
Because this is a live recording of a performance, comedy students can study the audience response to Berman as well as the material itself. This is a well-behaved, mild-mannered audience. There is no hooting. There is no wild applause. There is genuine, honest laughter. Sometimes only chuckles. Occasionally a cough. In the first two minutes, you can hear the audience shuffling in their seats, unsure whether the actual comedy has begun. That it takes so long to illicit a laugh from the audience would surely unsettle an entertainment executive today.
Twenty years ago, most of the material on this record went over my head. From the Airline bit: “…if anybody can forget an Erskine Caldwell novel. Frankly, I don’t know why that man is seeking success, he can have so much fun sitting around thinking.” I didn’t know who Erskine Caldwell was then (or until two days ago, when I looked him up on Google after listening to this record again), but I enjoyed the idea. Revisiting Inside Shelley Berman 20 years later, I find that I understand more of the jokes and references. The album may actually be better now than it was when I first heard it. We’re a long way from rotary dial phones and cassette tapes, but buttermilk and neuroses remain the same.
Fun fact: Shelley Berman was a recurring judge on Boston Legal.